19 Oct 2020
Paul Meyer: Chief Executive Officer, Commons Project
Countries have implemented a range of entry rules related to COVID testing and quarantine, with little consistency and rarely taking account of test results from other countries.
To more safely open borders, countries, airlines and people will need to trust test results, vaccination records and potentially other health data from across borders.
The risk of further outbreaks and the rising demands on testing and restrictions require an international framework to more safely resume travel and trade whilst we wait for vaccines.
With COVID-19 infections reaching 34 million people worldwide and more than 1 million global deaths to date, the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit featured a session discussing how international travel has to evolve to be safer, in order for public trust to be regained.
This infection rate and death toll have significantly impacted public health and healthcare, but other sectors and industries have also suffered from the direct and indirect economic slowdown due to a reduction in travel and trade. Attendees of the session said that if global travel and trade is to return to pre-pandemic levels, travellers will need a secure and verifiable way to document their health status as they travel and cross borders.
The economic impact due to the slowdown of travel and trade has been great, compared to before the outbreak of the virus. In 2019, travel and tourism represented 10% of global GDP and accounted for 1 in 10 jobs worldwide. But between January and August 2020, there was a 69% decrease in international passengers, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. This has translated into airline losses of $350-$400 billion. The pandemic has also resulted in an unprecedented disruption to world trade, which bodies such as the World Trade Organization forecast to fall between 13% and 32% in 2020.
Do countries need to learn to trust health data across borders?
Nine months into the pandemic, the prospect of vaccines may offer a light at the end of the tunnel. But in order for travel and trade to resume – even with vaccines available – policymakers need access to a common framework to aid in their data-based decisions on the border entry requirements of their country.
In the absence of being able to trust health data created outside their borders, many countries insist on testing on arrival, or simply close their borders. In their haste to close borders, efforts have often been disparate and uncoordinated. As a result, there are a myriad of approaches to COVID regulations and restrictions and almost as many different quarantine measures as there are countries. Only a common ground for recovery and bringing health records across borders can restore trust again.
Rebuilding confidence in travellers
The issue of trust was especially clear in Europe during the summer peak, when many chanced flying to holiday destinations. As holidaymakers sunned themselves on the beach, travel restrictions tightened in reaction to the latest level of COVID infections, leaving many facing unexpected quarantine on returning home. The evolution of quarantine measures has become increasingly complex for travellers to follow, as individual states, sub-regions, cities and towns emerge as risk zones.
To avoid these situations, the world needs a unified digital infrastructure and health trust framework, where health data can be shared securely across borders, as well as with airlines and other stakeholders. Otherwise people will not dare to sit on a plane, and not because they worry about the flight, but because they don’t know what will happen before or after their flight. Will they have to present a negative COVID-19 test from a lab in their country? Will this lab be trustworthy in the eyes of the border control agents? Or will they have to take a test at the airport when they land?
This is why there is such an urgent need for solutions like CommonPass to make international travel safer, through trust in health data and transparency of entry requirements. The aim is to put a digital infrastructure and trust framework in place to accommodate vaccine records before vaccine distribution begins. Without a common shared platform for sharing health information, the confusing range of uncoordinated regulations and restrictions will continue, even if a vaccine or several vaccines become available.
First global trials for sharing health data across borders
Trials for this health trust framework will be piloted in October 2020, in collaboration with major airlines and airports, with governments taking an observer role. The trials are intended to demonstrate how the CommonPass framework is built to protect privacy, show how test results from a trusted lab or vaccination record flow into the framework and can be presented at the airport on arrival.
With a mutual acceptance of each other's tests, countries can confidently allow travellers and trade to resume. A solid infrastructure will get us moving again.
To achieve this goal amid the risk of further outbreaks, it’s also vital that testing is not just for the privileged, but for everyone. And everyone needs to be able to control their own health data and store it securely.
Ultimately, countries will always control their own borders. There will not likely be a policy accepted by everyone, but the future of travel should implement a digital trust framework that can accommodate different types of health information, so that countries can have the flexibility to implement nuanced rules that can evolve with the science and pandemic, rather than having to implement new processes and systems with every change.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.